In recent years, coconut oil has earned a “health halo” of sorts thanks to claims that it can do everything from promote weight loss to fight heart disease. Unfortunately, it's high in saturated fat, so for people keeping an eye on their fat numbers, coconut oil almost is almost always excluded. That includes us. Until now, we've never used coconut oil in our recipes because it made the nutritional numbers difficult to keep inside our guidelines. Here, we explore the science, facts, and reasons behind when, where, and how to use it.
Credit: Credit: Magone/Getty

Shelf space reserved for the once-mysterious coconut oil has exploded in recent years as the tropical fruit (or nut, depending on your definition) is earning much acclaim in the nutrition world. The modern-day, health-focused cook may use coconut oil as a substitute for butter, vegetable oil, or shortening in baked goods, roasted vegetables, soups, and more. Nutrition bloggers and healthcare professionals claim coconut oil may help treat conditions some health conditions and help individuals lose weight.

Coconut oil also has a claim to fame in the world of beauty, too, as some use it as a moisturizing agent for hair and skin. With all of the touted nutrition benefits, some may wonder why Cooking Light does not use this multi-faceted oil in our recipes. Let’s take a deeper dive into the research to find out.

The Facts About Coconut Oil

Most of the purported health benefits of coconut oil are associated with its high content of medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs). However, this is also where detractors point to argue coconut oil can't be healthy. MCFAs are saturated fatty acids, while long-chain fatty acids (LCFAs), such as those found in vegetable oils, can be saturated or unsaturated, depending on how many carbons the fats have.

For many decades, researchers and doctors have told patients that they should avoid saturated fats to reduce their risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, and other conditions. The role of saturated fats in the development of heart disease is becoming more controversial, however. While some researchers suggest saturated fats are not associated with heart disease and stroke, all major policy-making organizations in the United States still recommend limiting saturated fat intake to reduce overall risk.

Since Cooking Light refers to these governing bodies to help us frame the nutritional guidelines for our recipes, the fact that coconut oil is 92 percent saturated fat makes it difficult to fit within our established parameters. However, there is still much to be discovered about coconut oil and fats in general. As research becomes clearer, we may begin adding coconut oil to our ever-growing arsenal of healthy cooking ingredients. After all, we now know there are benefits to the healthy cook using butter wisely. If we do use coconut oil, we will caveat the nutritional numbers with a note that for people watching their saturated fat intake, recipes with coconut oil may not be acceptable.

Credit: Photo: fcafotodigital/Getty Images

What’s This Buzz About MCT Oil?

MCFAs, such as those found in coconut oil, make up medium-chain triglyceride (MCT) oils. MCT oils are digested, absorbed, and converted to fuel more efficiently than vegetable oils with LCFAs. For this reason, MCT oil is used clinically to help patients with impaired fat digestion, as well as with athletes as a quick source of energy.

Studies have shown that MCTs increase fat oxidation (fat break down for energy) and thermogenesis (burning calories) more than LCTs. Some studies show people experience greater satiety when they replace LCT oils in their diet with MCT oils. The increased satiety factor could lead to reduced food intake and potential weight loss. Though coconut oil is composed of MCFAs, it is not equivalent to MCT (the molecular structure is different). Therefore, we cannot assume that coconut oil will have the same satiety benefits as MCT oils. However, among saturated fatty acids, the primary MCFA in coconut oil, which is called lauric acid, has been shown to contribute the least to fat accumulation.

Lauric acid and its association with cardiovascular disease (CVD), specifically serum cholesterol, has been studied at length, but the science remains unclear. Lauric acid has been shown to raise HDL (good) cholesterol, though some studies suggest it may also raise LDL (bad) cholesterol, as well as serum triglycerides. These are all risk factors for CVD.

Additional studies show that when lauric acid replaces carbohydrates in the diet, total cholesterol-to-HDL ratios and LDL-to-HDL ratios fall when compared with carbohydrates only. So, although coconut oil appears to raise HDL levels, research is inconclusive as to whether it improves the total cholesterol-to HDL ratio. That ratio is a more significant predictor of CVD, which is why the medical community has not fully endorsed coconut oil in diets.

The Bottom Line: Though research is still unclear regarding the benefits of coconut oil, there could still be a place for it in the healthy cook's kitchen. Whether it’s used as a substitute for butter, oil, or shortening, coconut oil can add delightful flavor, silky texture, and increased moisture to recipes. As with most concentrated sources of fat, the key is to use this oil in moderation. For now, Cooking Light will use coconut oil sparingly, and when we do, we will make note of it and how it affects the nutritional numbers.

*Editor's Note: Edited for clarity on 11/16/2016.